"The Warriors" fights on

Twenty-six years after being shunned by the mainstream, the cult classic rises again (and again, and again).

Published November 28, 2005 12:54PM (EST)

It all started with the battle of Cunaxa near Babylon in 401 B.C. If Prince Cyrus hadn't challenged his brother, Artaxerxes II, for the Persian throne and hired 10,000 Greek mercenaries, the most intriguing new special edition DVD and the most hyped video game of 2005 and one of the most eagerly anticipated remakes of 2006 would never have happened.

"The Warriors," Walter Hill's 1979 fantasy about street gangs, has just been released on DVD with special commentary from Hill and the cast and crew. At the same time, Rockstar Games has issued "The Warriors" video game in PlayStation 2 and Xbox formats. And Grove Press is now shipping its reissue of Sol Yurick's 1965 novel, "The Warriors," which, as the cover says, is "The Basis of the Cult Classic Film."

Yurick's novel is the basis, but not the Ana-basis. Here's the short form: Cyrus got himself killed, and his Greek mercenaries -- the "Ten Thousand" of much classical lore -- fought through 1,000 miles of Persian soldiers and barbarian tribes, each with its own mode of dress and special weapons, to the sea and safety. One of their generals, Xenophon, went back to Athens and wrote a book about it, "The Anabasis," and from there it was pretty much a straight shot to pop culture immortality. Movies have often alluded to Xenophon, notably Sam Peckinpah's 1976 "Cross of Iron," with James Coburn, about a group of German soldiers trapped behind enemy lines on the Russian front.

"The Anabasis," usually translated as "The March Upcountry" but also titled by some as "The Persian Expedition," became an instant bestseller. In the early 1960s, a one-time employee of the New York Department of Welfare turned struggling novelist named Sol Yurick -- trust me, this is all going to come together -- submitted a manuscript to his publisher inspired by his firsthand experiences with what were then called juvenile delinquents. The book was about a single night in the life of a gang from Coney Island called the Dominators and its hair-raising adventure trying to return home on the subways after a gang meeting in the Bronx.

During breaks in the ordeal, one of Yurick's characters, a kid with a literary bent, reads from a Classics Illustrated comic (the original graphic novels) about Greek warriors fighting their way through enemy territory to safety and sees a heroic reflection of his own sordid life. The book depicted in the comic is never named, but it is, of course, "The Anabasis" -- a book that was never included in the Classics Illustrated series but which, as Yurick comments in the introduction for the current edition of his novel, "would have made a great comic book."

Yurick is right -- it would have made a great comic book, and finally it did. The comic book was Hill's movie, shot in about 60 days on various New York locations with virtually unknown actors and on a shoestring budget. (Only one scene, a spectacular fight in a subway station men's room, was shot on set.) The film follows the outline of the book, but quickly establishes its own identity. Andrew Laszlo's cinematography transforms New York into a nightmarish world of neon night-glo colors, reflected off shiny wet pavement in what looks like a demented neoimpressionist vision. Barry DeVorzon's synthesizer theme seems to throb to the beat the gang members move with -- literally, in the opening sequence, when we see the garishly clad gangs marching through the subways on the way to the meeting.

Like the ancient Persian tribes, the gangs -- black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and some, like the Warriors, racially mixed -- have their own signature outfits and weapons. The Boppers' nighttime outfits (some gangs dress up to go out for the evening) wear tan slacks, black shirts and metallic magenta vests with 1940s-style fedoras. The Savage Huns dress like Chinese prols; the Electric Illuminators wear bright yellow-gold silk jackets with their emblem emblazoned on the back. The Warriors (their name changed from the Dominators for the movie) are basic and stylish in their brown leather vests, colors on the back, no shirts. The Gramercy Riffs, a black gang, wear orange karate shirts. In one of the film's bizarre little jokes, their weapon of choice is the hockey stick, surely the first and only time that so many black men have been seen carrying that piece of sporting equipment.

At least one gang, the Highhats, in black pants, long-sleeved red striped pullover shirts, suspenders, corpse-white makeup, and black top hats, reveals the influence of a source for the film version of "The Warriors" that has gone curiously unmentioned, Herbert Asbury's highly fictionalized book about 19th century New York street thugs, "The Gangs of New York." Much of the time the film seems less inspired by Yurick's novel than by Asbury's book. At times, "The Warriors," the movie, is "Gangs of New York" on amphetamines.

Following Yurick's plot, the Warriors go to the Bronx to the meeting called by the enigmatic leader of the biggest gang in the city. In one of the many classical allusions ingeniously inserted by Hill in the script, the gang leader's name is Cyrus. His plan is simple: The gangs, if they maintain a truce, could unite and outnumber the city's police by five to one. In short, led by a man of vision, they could rule the city. Cyrus (played by an unknown actor named Roger Hill, who died a few years after the movie was shot) enthralls the delegates (many fans of "The Warriors" can recite his entire speech by heart). But Cyrus is murdered for kicks by Luther, the leader of the Rogues, a gang that rides around in a graffiti-strewn hearse. Luther is played by veteran Walter Hill character actor David Patrick Kelly, who looks like the illegitimate son of Cagney's Cody Jarrett in "White Heat."

Kelly's exuberance at the chaos he causes is infectious. "What are you so happy about?" snarls one of the Rogues. "I'm havin' a good time!" Kelly shrieks in reply. Late in the movie, when asked why he did it, Kelly responds with my all-time favorite explanation for psychotic behavior: "No reason. I just like doin' things like that." The Warriors are blamed for the murder, and after dodging police nightsticks in the ensuing riot, must fight their way back to Coney Island, facing annihilation from different gangs at every subway stop. And -- horror of horrors -- all the trains in this movie are locals. Scorned and reviled by the mainstream media upon its release, "The Warriors" picked up such unlikely fans as Pauline Kael (whose rave review in the New Yorker stunned the magazine's more genteel-minded readers) and, a few months after its release, President Ronald Reagan (who phoned the film's lead actor, Michael Beck, to tell him that he had screened the movie at Camp David and enjoyed it immensely).

In the 26 years since its release, the film has evolved into a cult phenomenon, the subject of international Web sites, including the U.K.-based Warriors Movie Site (which, according to its Webmaster, Gareth Jones, gets nearly 50,000 hits a month) and an Italian site dedicated to "I Guerrieri della Notte." DeVorzon's soundtrack has been reissued, and, in addition to the video game, there is a set of action figures. You can even purchase a replica of the Warriors' vest. One of the film's gangs, the Baseball Furies, itself inspired partly by the band Kiss, has spawned a punk band of the same name. In the Diplomats' recent video "Crunk Musik," the group members appear in Furies' face paint.

With the possible exception of "Scarface," no film has been quoted so many times by hip-hop artists, from Ol' Dirty Bastard on "Enter the 36 Chambers" to Craig Mack's "Flava in Your Ear (Remix)," in which Puff Daddy, at the beginning of the clip, reprises the film's best known lines: To the beat of clinking bottles, he imitates the wail of the movie's psychotic Luther: "War-ri-ors, come out to pla-ay. War-ri-ors, come out to plaa-ay!" There are reports that the line has now worked its way into the patter of NBA players; Commissioner David Stern, who recently launched a campaign to clean up the league's image, would probably not be amused to know the source of the chant.

Let's hope Stern doesn't remember some of the editorials from 1979 written by conservative spokesmen, particularly the late Max Rafferty, a nationally syndicated columnist who wrote that "The Warriors" was "violence purely for the sake of violence," citing several reports -- some real, some exaggerated -- inspired by the gang violence in the film.

Conservatives -- though, surprisingly, not Ronald Reagan -- weren't the only ones up in arms. "The Warriors" was greeted by the critical establishment as if a cold, wet corpse had been dumped on its doorstep. The New York Times and the Village Voice, which supposedly represent both the establishment and alternative ends of the critical spectrum, were, on this occasion, in agreement: They hated it. A review from Desmond Ryan of the Philadelphia Inquirer was typical of responses from daily papers: "'The Warriors,' a sickening film that glorifies gang warfare and brutal violence ... has left a bloody trail of real-life mayhem and death in its wake ... In hundreds of cities across the U.S., the depraved violence shown in this movie has been blamed for inciting young people to fight, rampage and kill, in obvious imitation of the hoodlum gang members in 'The Warriors.'"

Ryan's near-hysteria wasn't entirely based on urban legend. There were numerous reports of violence around the country where the film was showing, though the most publicized incident was the murder of a 16-year-old boy in Dorchester, Mass.; the accused killer, a gang member, was later proved to have been drunk and asleep while the movie was showing. Paramount, perhaps in reaction to the negative publicity, quickly yanked the original posters, which featured a hoard of gang members from the movie with the legend, "These are the armies of the night" -- take that, Norman Mailer. "They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City." Some theater owners refused to display the poster; the fantasy hit too close to home.

Kael's review in the March 5, 1979, New Yorker surprised serious moviegoers by turning the principal argument against the film on its head. Essentially she admitted that the primary criticism of the film was true: "The Warriors" does glorify violence, and aren't we lucky that it does? And isn't the glorification of ugly reality what movies are all about?

"The Warriors," she wrote, "is a real moviemaker's movie: it has in visual terms [emphasis Kael's] the kind of impact that 'Rock Around the Clock' did behind the titles of 'Blackboard Jungle.' 'The Warriors' is like visual rock ... The physical action is so stylized that it has a wild cartoon kick to it, like 'Yojimbo' and the best Kung-Fu movies. The fighting is so exhilaratingly visceral, and so contrapuntal in the Oriental-martial-art-dancing manner that you have no thought of pain or gore."

Sparked by Kael's review, a fascinating small body of criticism has collected around "The Warriors." In his book "The Blood Poets: A Cinema of Savagery, 1958-1989," film critic Jake Horsley praised the film for being "one of the first American movies to come up with a genuine comic book nihilism, to sell us the sheer joy of destruction." Horsley gets to the heart of the film's appeal: "These Warriors aren't rebels, exactly, and if they're wild, it's not for any particular reason (they were simply born that way); they're not kicking against anything, they're just kicking."

For newcomers, the special edition DVD explains the near-fanaticism that "The Warriors" has inspired. Laszlo's color photography, drab in recent TV broadcasts (like the current TBS showings) is once again vivid and lurid, and the sound is so sharp you can hear a baseball bat slither through the palm of a Fury. Hill (who once told an interviewer he had aspirations of being a comic book illustrator) returns to the Classics Illustrated conceit, framing the opening scene in animated panels. He also freezes the final frame of some scenes and segues into the next, underlining the point that what follows is not to be mistaken for realism.

Despite the plethora of articles to the contrary, "The Warriors" doesn't have much to do with real street gangs, then or now. For that matter, despite its legendary status as the ultimate New York street gang movie, it really doesn't have that much to do with New York. Hill, a Californian, knew little about the city and thus was able to re-create it with a sense of fantasy where a New York filmmaker, say, the Martin Scorsese of "Mean Streets," would have gone for realism. Hill didn't see New York as New York but as a giant movie set. The Warriors go to a gang meeting supposedly in the North Bronx (actually shot in Riverside Park); the cops arrive, a riot ensues, and the Warriors flee to a nearby Bronx cemetery (actually Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn); the nerve center station at Union Square was really the cavernous Hoyt and Schermerhorn Street station in downtown Brooklyn. "The Warriors" is a feast of visual guessing games for long-time New Yorkers.

For all its effective use of location shots, though, "The Warriors" seems to take place not in a real city but in some weird alternative universe populated almost entirely by street gangs and cops. There probably are no more than two dozen average citizens in the entire film, all of them glimpsed from a ghostly distance. The streets of this New York are not merely devoid of traffic, but of parked cars (except as needed to toss a Molotov cocktail at). In Yurick's novel a man yells at the gang, "You punks think you own the street!" In Hill's movie, the gangs own all the streets -- or at least they do at night.

Strangely, there are almost no guns, which means, as it did in "The Road Warrior," that the gangs must come up with more ingenious weapons with which to create mayhem. And the unstated reason there are no guns points to the biggest difference between the real New York of 1979 and the New York of "The Warriors": In the latter there are no drugs. That seems like a comforting thought until you realize that this is a world capable of nurturing such characters without the use of artificial stimulants. In one of the many weird visual details that dot the film, a pinball machine stands in a subway station. In the real Brooklyn, that pinball machine would stand as much chance of surviving a night as "The Warriors" had of winning an Academy Award.

There's something else about the film that's quickly apparent to first-time viewers. Frightening as the Warriors' world is, the violence isn't a fraction as graphic as even routine teen-action movies of the present day. In fact, the entire movie doesn't contain as much graphic violence as the first 15 minutes of Rockstar's "Warriors" video game, which places the film's characters in new scenarios.

The most puzzling aspect of "The Warriors" is why none of its actors ever attained stardom. James Remar (as ultra-macho Ajax) and David Patrick Kelly became familiar faces in character parts (both were featured in Hill's Nick Nolte-Eddie Murphy vehicle, "48 Hours"). Lynne Thigpen, the underground deejay who tips off the various gangs to the Warriors' progress, died two years ago after a successful career on stage and film, and as one of the stars of the TV show "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" Marcelino Sanchez, who played Rembrandt, died of cancer in 1986. And Tom McKitterick, who played Cowboy, has never been tracked down even by the film's ardent fans. The only actor in "The Warriors" to reach something approaching fame is Mercedes Ruehl, who appeared in a short but effective bit as a plainclothes policewoman.

But the leads, Michael Beck as the War Chief, Swan, and Deborah Van Valkenburgh as Merci, a street girl who takes up with the Warriors, should have been stars. Van Valkenburgh, who bore a striking resemblance to Angelina Jolie, was a New York stage actress when she was cast in "The Warriors" and later costarred with Ted Knight on a TV sitcom, "Too Close for Comfort." Beck, as chiseled and enigmatic as a young Viggo Mortensen, had the misfortune to be cast, in his next film, with Olivia Newton John in the musical "Xanadu" and afterward appeared mostly in television roles. The only explanation I can offer for the failure of Beck and Van Valkenburgh to land more starring parts is the stigma that was attached to the film for years after its release.

Next year, "The Warriors'" strange story will get another chapter with Tony Scott's new film version set in Los Angeles (how Scott can pull it off without subways will be interesting to see). Will the new film be greeted with the same horror and derision as the original? Or will a legion of critics step forward and denounce the remake in the name of a film that had so few champions on its release? We'll see. But, meanwhile, it's reassuring to find that on watching it again after all these years "The Warriors" remains a bona fide guilty pleasure, still not everyone's cup of tea.

There are those who will simply never get it. For instance, Sol Yurick, who, in the introduction to the reprint of his novel, writes that, "on the whole, the movie was trashy, although beautifully filmed." Correct. But, "I looked for my novel on the screen. I found a skeleton of it intact. Its revolutionary content was missing."

"What is astonishing to me," he says, "is the durability of the movie ... I have to admit that I didn't and still don't understand the phenomenon ... 'The Warriors' is not the best of my books." The appeal of the film, I think, is that it dumps the sociopolitical baggage of the lives of street gangs and the conditions that produce them. Yurick meant for the title of his book to be taken ironically; Hill's movie takes the title literally. Hill really has no interest in the psychology of street gangs (and what psychologist could explain Kelly's Luther?). The movie tells you what the kid reading the Classics Illustrated comic understood even if his creator didn't, namely, that anyone's life, no matter how squalid, can include an element of heroism.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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